Florida Atlantic University's first student-run news source.


Florida Atlantic University's first student-run news source.


Florida Atlantic University's first student-run news source.


Graduate Workshop yields dissertation tips and advice

On Oct. 23, the Graduate Student Association hosted its second dissertation workshop of the year. The workshop was intended to help graduate students deal with the dissertation process. This workshop was a great improvement on GSA’s previous effort.

Presenters were better prepared, the event was better attended, and on the whole, feedback was more positive than before. Rather than pay for a guest speaker, GSA opted for a combined video presentation and a panel of experts from FAU faculty. The result was a presentation that was both informative and cost-effective.

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be presenting some of the information from these workshops and looking at various key issues in preparing for and surviving your dissertation. Although mainly intended for students pursuing their doctoral studies, many of the ideas and tips can equally be applied to master theses. This week I’ll be focusing on the role of the advisor.

Why is a doctoral dissertation so problematic?

Perhaps the biggest problem with doctorates (PhD’s) is that they cover such a huge range of fields. It’s possible to get a PhD in science, engineering, and the arts and humanities. With such diversity, it’s hard to make useful generalizations beyond a certain point.

PhD’s require courses (normally around 80 credits, roughly 4 years of study at FAU), comprehensive examinations and a dissertation. Required courses and examinations are easy enough to understand, but the doctoral dissertation causes far more problems.

Of those PhD students who make it through their courses, pass their comprehensive exams and are admitted to candidacy, two-thirds never graduate. The stumbling block is the doctoral dissertation – they leave their programs ABD (all but dissertation).

The dissertation is usually the largest work a student has attempted up to that point in their career and is a major undertaking. Completing the dissertation is the biggest and hardest part of getting a PhD. Success doesn’t just depend on having the right courses, the right background or even the right idea. Successful completion of the PhD also depends on knowing (and being able to work with) the right people, being able to manage your time and being organized.

Other factors are social and psychological.

Most PhD’s in the US take at least four years to complete, which is a major investment in time and money. Doctoral students are at least in their early twenties when they begin study and may see their friends get into high earning jobs, buy houses, start families and settle down, while they remain “in school”. For mature / non-traditional students, the PhD can mean “stepping out” of regular life to return to academia.

Doctoral study can be rewarding, but can also lead to feelings of isolation, as its likely that only a few people will understand (or care) about what you are studying and researching. The depth and intensity of study means that it’s all too easy to lose touch with the outside world.

Before you start, you need to be sure that you really want to get your PhD, you are interested in your field of study, and are willing to spend at least the next few years of your life “in school”. Getting a PhD is difficult – if it weren’t then a lot more people would have one. It is also very rewarding, although those wanting to get rich quick should stay away.

Graduate assistants at FAU are lucky to earn over $10,000 per year. Post-docs in academia may earn in the range of $20k-$30k per year, and associate professors earn around $40k / year. Full tenured faculty can earn $50k-100k per year, but bear in mind that these people have spent at least a decade studying at University, and maybe ten years working at the post-doc and associate professor level.

Before you start, talk to people you know; grad students, professors and researchers, and make sure that the PhD is the right qualification for you.

Choosing an advisor

“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”

One of the most important tasks facing any prospective PhD candidate is to choose the right advisor, and the right committee. Your advisor is critically important during your time as a doctoral student. Your advisor is responsible for guiding you through the PhD process, and the person with whom you’ll share a close working relationship over a number of years.

Beware of being “given” or “assigned” an advisor. A doctoral dissertation is meant to be your own original work. The sort of work upon which you can be advised, supervised and mentored, largely depends on who is your advisor, and who is on your dissertation committee. Just who is “right” depends on a number of factors. First, it’s vital that you and your advisor share common research interests and goals. Pick an advisor who is interested and involved in research that interests you. Interested, because your advisor will be more likely to get involved with your research. Involved, because you will need your advisor’s input and advice in your research.

You should also make sure that your advisor is going to have the time and the inclination to advise you. Faculty who are extremely busy with research and who have large teaching loads or major administrative duties should probably be avoided. Individuals differ in how well they can manage their time, but everyone has their limits.

Other factors play a role – some advisors are better with students than others. An excellent academic record is no guarantee of interpersonal skills, so make sure you can get along with the person you think you want to work with.

Some graduate students have felt ignored, bullied or belittled by their advisors, and some students are just used as “slave labor” in lieu of research assistants. In the end, a supportive and helpful advisor may be better than one with an excellent academic record, but a complete absence of social skills.

Another reason to pick a more personable advisor is that you have to form a committee – a group of faculty who will sit together and evaluate your doctoral research. Tension between faculty members on your committee can cause a number of problems, including delaying your graduation or forcing you to revise your dissertation to satisfy their personal whims.

The best thing to do is check these things out well in advance. Write to your prospective advisor, read up on his or her current research. Many academics have web pages with their current interests listed. You might also want to write to their current or previous students and ask about their graduate experiences.

Obviously, you need to be careful here and keep your inquiries professional, but it pays to be forewarned in these matters. The last thing you want to do is sign up to do a PhD with an advisor who is an ogre. If you are really keen to work with a particular person, making inquiries and establishing a dialogue with that person makes it more likely that you’ll be noticed during the selection process, which can help your chances of being accepted into a particular PhD program.

What to expect from an advisor

Advisory relationships vary greatly between people, disciplines and even during your course of study. It’s important to make sure that both you and your advisor are on the same page here.

Make sure you know what your advisor expects from you, and that your advisor knows what you expect from him or her. GSA’s first dissertation workshop highlighted a number of reasonable expectations a doctoral student could have of their advisor: Being available is very important. This is not to say that the advisor should be on call 24/7, but they should stick to agreed meeting times, and avoid taking a year off on sabbatical while you struggle alone.

You should also expect your advisor to receive and return your work promptly and with substantive feedback. Mainly though, you should expect your advisor to be involved and interested in what you’re doing. Your advisor is not there to be your sole teacher, nor is an advisor meant to write your dissertation for you. On the other hand, they’re not meant to ignore you either.

Your advisor does not own you, and does not have the right to make unreasonable demands of you. You need to be sure that your advisor is able to act as your advocate with the department and your committee. An advisor who isn’t willing to stand up for you is a handicap – making it easier for less cooperative members of your committee to give you the runaround, or play politics.

Another important factor is that your advisor should be writing letters of recommendation for you, for grants, scholarships, and of course, for jobs post-graduation. You need someone who’s on your side and willing to speak up on the matter.

You also need someone who’s willing to challenge you and be challenged by you. Mostly this all boils down to one thing: respect. An important part of your professional relationship depends on you and your advisor having mutual respect.

You may be a little in awe of your advisor to begin with, but that soon passes. Make sure you keep respecting your advisor, but make sure your advisor is respectful of you. As a doctoral student you are there to learn, not to serve.

The difference between being “all but dissertation”, and graduating into a successful career depends on you, your advisor, and your working relationship. Individuals have different needs, and a great advisor to some, is no good for others.

Be careful and discerning with your choice – the relationship you will have with your advisor will be one of the most important you have in your professional career.

Next time: The committee, and your dissertation proposal and defense. Plus, more graduate news from around FAU.

EventsGraduate Student Association & Graduate Grants Committee MeetingTuesday, Nov. 6, 20012:30-4:30 p.m. Royal Palm Room, University Center, Boca Raton Campus Planning Graduate Projects and Events & Voting on GGC grants; Everyone welcome!Contact: [email protected]

Graduate Social & TA CertificationThursday, Nov. 8, 20015-7 p.m. Live Oak Pavilion (behind UC), Boca Raton CampusEveryone welcome; Social and Certificates for TA Workshop–snacks provided!Contact: [email protected]

University-Wide Spring Graduate OrientationThursday, Jan. 5, 2002 3-5 p.m. Palmetto Palm Room, University Center, Boca Raton CampusEveryone welcome; Graduate orientation & welcome – snacks provided!Contact: [email protected]

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